St. Petersburg, Fl
It was a rough and bumpy first race weekend for us here in St. Petersburg… literally. The weekend kicked off Thursday morning with an hour long track walk. It was amazing seeing the differences in track surface from runway to street to asphalt. There was a lot of camber in the road due to the streets natural crowning, causing the car to often slide right out to the walls on corner exit. Then there were the walls themselves. If I had to describe them in one word, it would be “close.” They were always right there reminding you of the limit.
The rest of Thursday for me was an absolute blast off track. Immediately after the track walk I went to a luncheon where I was interviewed by news and radio stations up until the top guys showed up. To my surprise, Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Scott Dixon, and Spencer Pigot all joined me and the other Mazda Scholarship drivers for lunch and an interview in front of the Gran Prix partners and city officials. All of them were more than willing to give me advice and were very personable. I later went on to participate in a few media training sessions with all the drivers from the Mazda Road to Indy and an awesome Mazda photo shoot with the two other Scholarship drivers Nico Jamin and Santiago Urrutia. Then we wrapped up the day with the part I had been waiting for - getting on track.
The team strapped me in and I was out for the first time in my life on the Streets of St. Petersburg! It was exhilarating the first lap out. The walls were flying by me, there were cars all around; it was such an amazing first experience. We had about 3 laps until the session was red flagged due to a car hitting the wall. With about 10 minutes left in the session we got back on track and had a few more flying laps. All in all, we had about 10 laps around the course by the end of the session and were P6 of 27 cars. Not too shabby. We were definitely looking forward to the next couple of days.
Day Two started off early in the morning with a 7:30 a.m. practice and a 10:10 a.m. qualifying. I was extremely anxious to get back on track to try and improve our previous position but it was short-lived as the rear axle broke about 5 laps into the session cutting me short of throwing down a good lap. It was unfortunate especially because we needed as much track time as possible but the mechanics did an amazing job of getting the car fixed in the short amount of time between practice and qualifying. The boys finished up the car and we rolled onto grid for our qualifying session.
Qualifying up front at this track is extremely important as it is hard to pass and is usually littered with full course cautions. We got out for the first half of the session and were not where we wanted to be, around mid pack. We made some changes, threw on new tires, and went back out to try to throw down a faster lap which we did but it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. We qualified 17th overall. This was a huge blow to our confidence but we knew it wasn’t over. We had the engine builder come over and check everything out just to make sure the motor was okay and they did find out a few different issues that could have prevented the engine from performing at its full potential. This gave us a ray of hope for our races the next day.
Races 1 & 2
Again, we were out on track in the morning and afternoon for races 1 and 2. We were starting p16 after a couple of drivers were moved around post qualifying. I started the race on the outside, 8 rows back. It was nearly impossible to see in front of me because of the rear wings on these cars but my spotter yelled “Green, Green, Green” and we were off for our first race. I was given some great advice from Mazda Factory driver, Joel Miller, telling me that there is usually someone who goes down the inside, makes contact and slides up the race track leaving an open lane on the inside corner apex. All 27 of us were barreling down into turn one. I moved to the outside racing line while the majority of the pack was along the inside wall. I broke slightly early anticipating a wreck and a moment later I saw one car in the air, and more cars hitting each other. I immediately darted to the inside then held my line around two more cars in turn 2. A full course caution was called not to long after turn 3 and it’s hard to express how happy I was when I only counted 5 cars in front of me. We were able to pass 10 cars in the first 2 corners of the race putting us in 6th. We cruised behind the pace car for about 5 laps which put us 1/3 of the way through the race length. Then onto my first restart. It wasn’t pretty, but after a wreck on the front straight which we avoided, I was now in 7th place. Again, we were behind the pace car for another 5 laps or so which only left us with 6 minutes of race time when we took the green for our second restart. It was a true battle with cars in front and behind always putting on pressure. All in all we took an 8th place finish in our first ever Cooper Tires USF2000 series powered by Mazda race.
Race two began mid day with the sun shining down on us and a slight breeze blowing. Our grid position for race two is determined by the 2nd fastest qualifying time or the fastest race lap, whichever is faster. This left us again in the back of the pack, position 17, for the start of race 2. As the green flag flew, I darted to the outside and managed to grab a few positions in the first corner. By the end of the 2nd lap we made it up to 10th position before a brief full course caution came out. We knew it was going to be a battle after the caution. We had a lot of very talented drivers behind us and passing was also going to be difficult. After some very hard racing, we had an incident with another driver going into turn 4 that took us out of the race with 2 laps to go. Our right rear corner of the car was pretty torn up and I had no option but to say hi to the safety crew at the corner exit of turn 5. It was unfortunate but ultimately a result of very hard racing and was a great learning experience for our first race weekend.
We were definitely hoping to get our Soul Red car closer to the front of the pack but we are going to be doing a lot of work between now and rounds 3&4 at Barber Motorsports Park in order to ensure this. Thank you to everyone who supported us during this race and followed all of our updates on our social media handles this past week. I hope everyone enjoyed the live video stream of the race, interviews, and insights courtesy of the “Road to Indy TV” app and the guys on the Mazda Road to Indy TV.
All the best,